Sheriff’s office held dive, water rescue training in red flag conditions

SAUGATUCK, Mich. (WOOD) — The Allegan County Sheriff’s Office held its monthly dive and water rescue training Thursday.

Allegan County’s rescue team consists of 18 volunteer divers. Their full-time jobs include correction officers, police officers and firefighters.

Thursday’s training fell on a high-risk day with strong winds from the north at 10 to 20 mph. As a result, wave heights reached 3 to 6 feet during the afternoon. According to the National Weather Service, almost 81% of rescues happen in waves of 3 to 6 feet.

“It’s just one of those things that you just don’t know when it’s going to happen,” said Todd Wagner, Allegan County Sheriff’s Office marine administrator. “Just like anything, if you don’t use it, you lose it. We want to make sure we train on something each and every month.”

Divers attach to a line on the boat to systematically search the bottom of the lake.

Training took place at Oval Beach in Saugatuck. With a pier facing north, waves tend to crash into it directly, causing rip currents risk. Several rescues this summer took place due to people jumping off piers. Wagner says it is incredibly difficult for individuals to stay above water without a life vest.

“You got to be in great shape. You have to mentally and physically prepare yourself,” said Wagner.

Jumping off a pier on a red flag day often results in a rescue.

Thursday’s drills included being tied to a line or a boat to scan the bottom of the lake. Visibility is typically only 2 to 3 feet, leaving divers to rely heavily on touch. To help with the process, all boats are equipped with side-scanning sonar to search the area underwater. Anything that produces a shadow will appear.

When searching for a missing person, divers have what they call a “golden hour” before it’s too late. They rely heavily on the public’s account of where the person was last seen. Wagner’s number one recommendation to the public is to figure out a landmark or last seen point. This will help speed up the process of searching.

For those in the water, Wagner stresses that they must remain calm and flip onto their back. Conserving energy will buy time to be rescued.

“The biggest thing for people visiting Lake Michigan is to realize this is not the ocean. This is not the other Great Lakes. This is a completely different animal,” he said.

The end of summer is just weeks away, but Wagner says the training will continue. They plan to hold “ice water training” during the winter months.

“The lake is staying warmer longer, people are in the water more, but as it gets in towards fall, we get more of those northerly winds that we’ve already seen create some hazardous conditions,” said Wagner.

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